Searching for a Head of Product for an Education Organization by Todd Hand
Executive Blog Search
Thoughts Shares Industry Insights
One of the most difficult positions to fill in the ever-evolving edtech market is that of Head of Product. The reasons for this challenge are plentiful, but if a prospective employer takes the time to consider what I’m about to explain, you should be able to find a great fit.
Compared to other markets, technology is very new to the education space. When you consider education, on most levels you’re looking at institutions, businesses, and systems that were created for a model that was sustainable over 50 years ago but no longer is. From a business perspective, education is also slower moving, often with only one or two sales seasons per year, beholden to policy, and not well funded.
Technology in education brings its own set of issues: cost, integrating it into old infrastructures, adoption and implementation, and efficacy. All of these problems directly affect product development and success for any edtech company. Unlike other industries where technology has established roots, the education sector does not have a deep bench of product talent, nor has it a long history incorporating lean and agile development practices. Until recently, most of the larger traditional education companies have tried to develop their technology from within, and/or have hired from within the industry.
You might think I’m beginning to paint a very unattractive picture here. But, if you’re interested in education, consider that there is a lot to be excited about. For one thing, technology in education is here to stay. Anyone who wishes that education should return to the way it was back when they were in school will be left behind. Besides, most Millennials could be considered digital natives. They’ve never known the world without the internet or cellphones, and they have never had to get off of the couch to change the channel. As Millennials start their own families, you can be sure that they will expect technology to play a significant role in their own children’s education.
Here’s what I’ve seen by working with my education clients: efficacy has become the most important priority. However, the best products have not been the ones that usually win. The products with the best sales teams do, especially sales teams with deep ties to the customer base. The products that have been most successful fit into what teachers already do. This conflict between efficacy and ease of use is very different from the rest of tech product development. How the edtech industry works through this dynamic will be critical. For example, I am seeing some of the more progressive companies successfully build collaborative teams of professionals in sales, marketing, product development and product management to improve efficacy and at the same time be user-friendly.
You need to look for special people to lead education product development. It can be hard to draw product talent from tech into edtech because (in most cases) the former can offer better compensation, equity, faster-paced environments, and projects that are cutting edge. Overall, the culture in education companies tend to be more humanistic; end users are teachers and students. Something else to consider, education has a much (MUCH) higher women to men ratio than other tech.
Innovative edtech companies have been recruiting tech talent outside the education industry, and I expect that to increase. The pre-search process should be used to identify talented product people who have a desire to “do well and do good.” Time spent during the pre-search should also address how much change is needed to your product team to identify candidates who can effectively upgrade without alienating everyone. In the case of searching for an education Head of Product, consider including the following in your list of candidate attributes: the ability to be a constant force for innovation in product development; experience working cross-functionally through the entire product lifecycle; and knowledge of lean and agile development methodology. They should also have experience visiting classrooms and tradeshows to gather customer feedback to develop and maintain an understanding of the customer and your competition.
I’m interested in hearing about your experience looking for candidates for Head of Product positions, especially if you’re in the education space. Conversely, if you’re someone who’s moved from traditional tech to edtech, please share your experience, what were some of the challenges, differences, advantages?